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Even with football season underway and college basketball official visits heating up, there is no bigger story in college sports right now than realignment. Of course this year’s version of realignment involves the potential expansion of the Big 12.
Clearly most of the focus with Big 12 expansion revolves around football, but there is also a real impact for basketball as well.
Roughly 12 teams are being mentioned as possible candidates to fill up to four slots in the Big 12. Schools such as Cincinnati, South Florida, BYU, Houston, SMU, Temple, Tulane, Colorado State and UCF are still under consideration to varying degrees.
With that many schools in the mix, the search for potential expansion candidates so public and the appeal of Big 12 basketball at its highest following a tremendous two-year run for the conference, the hoops recruiting world is taking a long look at expansion as well.
Top-70 prospect Branden Carlson hails from the state of Utah and is considering BYU very heavily. Carlson, who also has official visits set up to Utah, UCLA, and Stanford, along with BYU, admits the expansion talk surrounding the Cougars is something that he is monitoring.
“I think it is a pretty big deal,” said Carlson of BYU potentially joining the Big 12. “Playing in the bigger leagues with better competition is a pretty big deal, so it would be great if they got into the Big 12.”
Three-star prospect Josh Carlton hails from Washington D.C., and he plays for the famed DeMatha Catholic program just outside the city. As he was weighing his options—his final list included the Connecticut Huskies along with Clemson, Xavier, and Georgetown—he told Scout he was paying attention to the process to see if UConn would be added to the league.
Carlton said he brought up potentially being in the Big 12 to UConn coaches during his official visit in August, but Kevin Ollie and his staff were fairly non-committal.
“I mentioned it to the coaches,” explained Carlton. “They said they couldn’t say too much, but they were hoping to get in.”
On Wednesday, he committed to UConn, even without definitive news about relocation. “I really like the coaching staff, especially coach Ollie,” he said. “Also the fact that it's a championship program really made me want to pick them.”
Of course, the level of concern varies from recruit to recruit. Top-20 forward Kris Wilkes from Indianapolis is also heavily considering Connecticut and has an official set up with the school to November.
When it comes to expansion, Wilkes doesn’t seem the least bit interested in how it is going to play out.
“I don’t pay too much attention to expansion talk,” said Wilkes. “Connecticut is a real good school, and if I went there it would be because of that. I really don’t care about talk of the Big 12.”
With kids all over the board on how much attention they are invested in expansion, coaches of the schools being mentioned are in a unique spot for how they handle it in recruiting.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin put it simply—he is selling the University of Cincinnati and the tradition that program has built for the past 60 years, not what league they are in or what league they could be in.
“Cincinnati is one of the 10 most storied programs of all time,” said Cronin. “We have a tradition rich basketball program. It has been, is and always will be one of the most storied programs.”
For Cronin, who is a Cincinnati native and followed the Bearcats as a kid, he has seen the team be a part of the Metro Conference, Great Midwest, Conference USA, Big East, and now the AAC.
“The tradition here has gone on because of, in spite of or regardless of conference for going on 70 years now,” said Cronin. “You look at what coach [Bob] Huggins did. Most of his work was in the Great Midwest and Conference USA. Myself in the Big East and now the American. Even if you include [Andy Kennedy], who was the interim coach for a year, we have had three coaches and four conferences recently.”
Cronin continued: “I am just going to continue to sell Cincinnati, the program we have, the $90 million arena we are planning to build, and the great university we have.”
While that is how Cronin is handling things, another head coach of a school being mentioned as a possible Big 12 entrant is taking a slightly different tact. Because of the sensitivity of the situation the coach asked not to be identified.
“I think any of the coaches of the schools that are getting mentioned, you sell the kids that are coming in for visits that we think there is a legitimate chance that we can get to the Big 12,” said the head coach.
The head coach continued: “Until the kids make a decision there are schools out there that are going to hit high school coaches, AAU coaches, and parents hard about us not being in the Big 12. They are going to ask us about it, and all I can tell them is that I think we have a good chance.”
Who knows what will happen with Big 12 expansion in the future. There is no doubt that football is driving the expansion bus, but behind the scenes it is also having an impact on college basketball recruiting.